Animal House is a towering achievement in American comedy. It’s simply not possible to understand the last 40 years of American movie comedy without seeing it. Which is pretty impressive for a film based around food fights, dead horses and double secret probation. Here’s five reasons why the drunken slobs of Delta House are a must for anybody who loves to laugh.
It invented the modern American comedy
Well, to be accurate National Lampoon pretty much invented modern American comedy, first in the early '70s as a magazine, then with a radio show that starred Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray. But it’s Animal House that made the biggest impact on comedy. Frat houses? The snobs versus the slobs? Horny teens running wild? Blame Animal House. But while this tale of the slovenly Delta Tau Chi Fraternity and the university administration that wants them shut down inspired a lot of shoddy knock-offs – as all classic films do – it was its sensibility that really made an impact. Aside from a few geniuses like Mel Brooks, American movie comedy had grown stale during the '70s. Animal House managed to be both extremely silly – the film is basically a bunch of wacky pranks aimed at stuffy establishment types – while keeping one foot in the real world of college relationships, excessive drinking, and hanging out with friends.
Even after close to 40 years, a lot of Animal House still feels fresh. Yes, it’s hardly the most woke film around, but it almost always comes down on the right side of history – unless you’re offended by the idea that university students are drunken letches, in which case did you not notice this film is titled “Animal House”? In part the timeless feel comes from being a film made in the late '70s but set in 1962 (it was the last gasp of the '70s nostalgia for the '50s that gave us American Graffiti and Happy Days) – despite the references to Vietnam and JFK, there’s an intentionally nostalgic feel to the pranks that takes the edge off, especially considering the harsh humour National Lampoon was known for.
It stars John Belushi
Belushi had made his name on Saturday Night Live – a show that had grabbed much of its cast from the National Lampoon radio show – and was easily the biggest comedy name cast here, so it’s surprising how little air time he gets. But he doesn’t waste a second of it: playing a cartoon character seemingly from another film entirely, as John "Bluto" Blutarsky he’s a force of nature. Nobody could play a comedy maniac like he could, and as someone here seemingly driven entirely by his id – his lunchroom impression of a pimple is both hilarious and the kind of thing nobody capable of thought would ever think to do – he single-handledly lifts the film to classic status every time he runs by, sculls a bottle of Jack Daniels, and collapses in a heap. Even when he’s peering through a window at a bunch of naked co-eds, his look to camera is brilliant.
Otis Day and the Knights
Something that modern comedies don’t have – but really should – is the music break. For a good two minutes during one of the party scenes, Animal House basically stops, so that the band Otis Day and the Knights can play a cover version of “Shout” while everybody dances around. It’s not all that funny (ok, bad dancing is always funny), but it’s a great way to keep the energy up, and a film like Animal House gets by in large part because the energy never lets up.
Otis Day (played by DeWayne Jesse) turns up again later, when the core members of Delta House are on a road trip and see the band’s performing at a local bar. “Wait till Otis sees us,” they say, “He loved us”. They enter with their dates. Everybody else in the bar is black. “We are going to die”. It’s clearly the '70s looking back at the '60s – it’s impossible to imagine a movie made in 1962 containing such a scene, let alone mining it so relentlessly for jokes about how threatened the white kids are (studio executives initially demanded it be cut) – and it adds some social scope to a film that largely exists inside its own bubble.
It’s just really, really funny
Animal House has everything you could ask for in a comedy. You want quotable lines? They don’t get much better than “Fat, drunk and stupid is no way to go through life”. What about hilarious performances? While most of Delta House aside from Belushi are good – Tim Matheson charming womaniser Otter is as good a Chevy Chase performance as you can get without hiring Chase – John Vernon as Dean Wormer, Kevin Bacon as freshman jerk Chip Diller and above all else, Mark Metcalf as Douglas C. Neidermeyer, are all first-rate bad guys.
And Animal House is that rare comedy where a big ending actually works: their destruction of the homecoming parade is both silly (Stork – played by co-writer Doug Kenny – leads a marching band down a dead end alley, where they mindlessly walk into a wall) and legitimately unsettling as the panicked crowd flees the smoke and destruction. It ends with a perfect one-two punch: first we find out what happened to everyone after the movie finished, and then, as in all classic movies, the lyrics of the end credits song recaps the movie we just watched.
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